‘This is Water’

By Chris Buchignani, May 11, 2013

I felt compelled to post about this video, which (to my knowledge) has absolutely no direct connection with the Nittany Valley or the Pennsylvania State University. I think its core message – about the true purpose and value of higher education – is worth sharing and does speak to a philosophy that animates our mission as an organization.

In 2005 (a good year), author David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address at Kenyon College in Ohio, which has been reproduced with accompanying visuals in the video below. The entire thing is exceptionally well done and worth watching from start to finish,  but I will quote from the section that inspired this piece:

“The real value of a real education… has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness, awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.” 

In his book, “Is Penn State A Real University? An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal,” Dr. Ben Novak shares the vision that Penn State’s founders had for a new sort of institution predicated on the concept of “Two Colleges,” one of credits and coursework and one of experience and camaraderie, where the “real University” took shape outside the classroom. At our inaugural Winter Reception in December 2012, I prefaced Dr. Novak’s talk about the book by explaining why The Nittany Valley Society published it: Not to persuade readers to embrace its positions, but to preserve the chance to engage with them, the opportunity to encounter a new and challenging way of thinking about something fundamental in our lives and to form an opinion of it. Personally, I do find a lot to like and agree with in Novak’s musings, but as a board member of the NVS, I also value it as an eternal spark, fraught with the potential to ignite the fires of intellectual curiosity and discourse that perpetually refresh our Valley and its University.

Watching this video, and internalizing Wallace’s message, brought to mind the value of Ben’s book and also reminded me of a quality that helps makes college towns unique and the Nittany Valley so special. We are lucky enough to have lived in a place where the essence of “real education” invoked by Wallace, the creative, inquisitive spirit that drives humanity forward, dwells forever. Every townie, every Penn Stater, has been touched by that in some way. And that’s pretty cool.

The point, I think, of Wallace’s speech, though it touches on the power of education to unlock our potential, is to remind us to be mindful and reinforce that the extent to which we are (or aren’t) is by our own choice. What new rewards might you reap by re-examining your relationship to Penn State or State College, by being mindful of what seems most obvious? Think on that. It’s a journey worth taking.